“Yeah, we did it. But the WAY we did it? Did y’all see how we did it?” - Danny Green, 2009
There was a held ball after the opening tip. Tyler Hansbrough and Michigan State’s Travis Walton dove on the floor, each trying to wrestle the rock from the other’s grasp before the refs whistled the play dead. Since there had been no established initial possession, with 19:57 on the clock there was a second opening jump ball. If you looked very closely, you would see the last moment that the 2009 National Championship was competitive. Before a sea of Spartan green and white, one of the greatest teams in North Carolina history saved its best for last, and its last was long in coming.
No team in the 21st century has started its season with greater expectations than the 2009 Tar Heels; not 2015 Kentucky, not 2019 Duke (or 2018, 2017, or 2015 Duke for that matter). UNC had won the 2005 National Championship, and in the following years they began the steady climb back to the top: 2006 was a surprisingly productive year despite the loss of its championship core; in 2007, they won the ACC Regular Season and Tournament titles; in 2008, they did so again, but were ranked #1 and made the Final Four.
But the 2007 season ended in a disastrous collapse against Georgetown in the Elite Eight, and in 2008 the Tar Heels were blitzed early by Kansas (“This game is ovah!” crowed Billy Packer in the first half), unable to climb all the way back in the second half. Following the loss to the Jayhawks, many of UNC’s players tested the draft waters; they didn’t like what they heard. More than that, they couldn’t bear to have their last memory in Chapel Hill be the embarrassment they had suffered in the Alamodome. Carolina’s core would return for one last title shot.
The core was made up of upperclassmen: Juniors Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Deon Thompson, along with seniors Danny Green, Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard (who would be lost to injury), and of course Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough, the three-time first-team All-American and reigning National Player of the Year, was already bound for the rafters of the Dean Dome, but he needed the Final Four nets in Detroit to complete his legacy as one of the best players Carolina has ever had.
UNC started out the season as the unanimous #1 team in the country and for the first thirteen games of the season they played like it, battering each opponent and running to a 13-0 record. One of those wins was a 98-63 rout of Michigan State in Ford Field, where the Final Four would be played:
The fourteenth game was a stunning home loss to Boston College, and four days later they fell at #4 Wake Forest to, incredibly, start 0-2 in the ACC. Some (read, the media) wondered aloud if the pressure and expectations were too much for UNC to handle.
But Carolina lost just one more game the rest of the ACC regular season schedule, finishing 13-3 in conference and winning a third straight Regular Season Championship. More importantly, they swept Duke, with their win in Cameron making Hansbrough, Danny Green, and Company 4-0 in their careers in Durham. Ty Lawson was named ACC Player of the Year, but battled a toe injury late in the schedule and into postseason play. UNC were upset in the ACC Semifinal by Florida State, however they still managed to secure the #1 seed in the NCAA South Regional.
It was in the tournament that things really took off: UNC crushed its four opponents in the South, the only scare coming against LSU in the Round of 32, when they trailed in the 2nd half before a Ty Lawson surge put the game back in Tar Heel hands. UNC won all four games by double digits, the last of them coming against the Blake Griffin-led Oklahoma Sooners to return to the Final Four. In the National Semifinal, UNC used an opening surge and sharp play from Lawson and Ellington to put away Villanova early and won 83-69. The stage was set for a rematch with the Spartans.
Few of us who watched UNC smash Sparty in the early season game would have predicted that Michigan State would make the title game, but Tom Izzo’s squad had been terrific through Big Ten play and into the tourney: They had gone 15-3 in the Big Ten, and had beaten #1-seeds Louisville and UConn to reach the final. Led by Kalin Lucas, Goran Suton, and Raymar Morgan they were playing their best basketball and would now have a National Championship home game just 70 miles from their campus. On top of that, the media crowned the Spartans as a team of destiny, representing the struggling auto industry of Michigan that had fallen into crisis that year.
As Roy Williams put it: “We kept reading about how if they beat us, it would fix the economy or something. I said, ‘Well you know what, let’s stay poor for a bit longer, then...’”
As they had done all tournament, the Tar Heels came out throwing haymakers: Michigan State had one lead all game, when it was 3-2 following a Suton three over Hansbrough. After that, it was all Carolina. By the under 16-minute mark, it was 15-5 Heels. By the under-12, it was 26-11. With nine minutes remaining in the first half, it was 36-13 and for the only time in my life I wished that Billy Packer hadn’t retired, so he could issue a similar pronouncement to the one he made in San Antonio the year before: This game was OVER.
Defensively, UNC’s length was a huge problem for the Spartans, who couldn’t find any way into the paint. On top of that, Green and Ellington were bothering their shooters and not allowing them to get clean looks coming off screens. Ty Lawson meanwhile was flying around the court like a free safety picking off passes. On the offensive end, Hansbrough and Thompson overpowered the outclassed Spartan bigs, scoring thrugh contasct and sending the senior Suton to the bench with two early fouls. With UNC scoring efficiently both inside and on the perimeter, the Spartans frantically tried to score quickly and make up the difference. It only made things worse: A rash of turnovers led to Carolina fast breaks and easy buckets.
By the time Wayne Ellington leaked out after a Lawson steal (his fifth of the half) and flushed down an uncontested dunk, it was 55-32 Carolina and the Heels had scored more first half points than any team in NCAA Championship history. Lawson would collect his sixth steal of the half before the horn sounded and UNC headed to the locker room up 55-34 (a record lead) and 20 minutes from a coronation. The Ford Field crowd was in shocked silence except for a huge pocket of Tar Heel supporters who were screaming themselves hoarse.
The second half was, considering the demolition that had come before, unremarkable. UNC took their foot off the gas and coasted a bit, knowing perfectly well that the job was done. Michigan State got the lead down to 14 a couple times but never seriously threatened, each time being answered by buckets from Lawson, Ellington, and Green. The closing minutes were a parade: Hansbrough, Green, and the other starters getting their curtain calls, Bobby Frasor coming on to score a breakaway layup, the walk-ons and Mike Copeland on the court for the final buzzer. The Tar Heels won it 89-72, a merciful score line that didn’t communicate just how thoroughly they had trashed Tom Izzo’s squad.
Ty Lawson led the way with 21 points, 6 assists, and an NCAA-record 8 steals. Wayne Ellington, who had been red-hot all tournament, had 19 points on 7-12 shooting (3 for 3 from deep), and Hansbrough had 18 points in his final college game. Suton led Sparty with 17. The Tar Heels forced 22 Michigan State turnovers to set the tone defensively.
With that win, Hansbrough had his ring, Lawson and Ellington were bound for the rafters of the Dean Dome (as ACC POY and Final Four MVP respectively), and Danny Green, the winningest player in Carolina history, had the sweetest win of all. Carolina had the title its stars had come back for, and Roy Williams had his greatest team. Of the six national championships that North Carolina has won, none of them were done in more dominating fashion than the 2009 team.